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Missouri, Kansas Higher Education Leaders Focus on College Access

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amid a federal push to boost college graduation rates, higher education officials from Kansas and Missouri gathered Tuesday to talk about barriers to people entering and completing college.

President Barack Obama has set a goal for the U.S. to have the best college graduation rate in the world by 2020. Korea is ranked first, with 58 percent of its population ages 25-34 having finished college; the U.S. is in a four-way tie for ninth place at 42 percent, according to a study published last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

To regain the top spot, the Education Department projects the nation will need to raise its completion rate by 50 percent, which translates into an additional 8 million students earning associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by the end of the decade.

The rising cost of higher education and the challenges transfer students face were among the topics discussed during the education summit at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. University and community college leaders also shared ideas for recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented populations.

University of Kansas chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little told participants of her experience leaving her segregated town in North Carolina for college and getting no help from her parents paying for her schooling.

“When I think about it, in some ways my aspiration was a bold one,” said Gray-Little, who became the university’s first Black chancellor. “I think that in our society it should not be unrealistic or bold for any student who has the capability to go to college. It should be the expectation.”

She talked about how the school has broadened student financial support and is working to notify students soon after their admission how much scholarship money they will receive. The school also is encouraging students to graduate within four years so they will incur less debt. And the school has recruitment efforts geared specifically toward students from underrepresented populations.

“I believe that, as a university, we are moving closer to creating an environment where all students, no matter what their backgrounds, whether there are financial considerations or other circumstances, can aspire and expect to go to college,” Gray-Little said. “And that’s really what we expect.”

One of the sessions dealt with the issue of illegal immigration. Last year Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have allowed young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. It applied to those who were under 16 when they arrived in the U.S., had been in the country at least five years and had a diploma from a U.S. high school or the equivalent.

Some states, such as Kansas, allow children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition if they meet certain requirements.

But that’s not true in Missouri.

Regardless of where illegal immigrant students live, it’s impossible for them to qualify for federal aid such as Pell grants. The lack of a valid social security number can make certain programs off limits, such as nursing, which requires a state certification. After graduation, the lack of documentation interferes with job searches, said presenter Gene Chavez, a counselor at East High School in the Kansas City, Mo., school district.

“I sit in my office talking to undocumented students who are bright students, who could go to almost any college or university across the country,” he said. “They invariably ask me the question, ‘Why am I doing all of this if I can’t go any further than I can go without a valid social security number?’ I just have to tell them, ‘We are hoping, we are praying, we are working to change the laws of this country, but it hasn’t happened yet.’”

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